It’s official: burnout is a factor influencing health

10.10.2019 - Articles, Mental health

As of May 2019, burnout has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization as a factor influencing health status. The World Health Organization has defined it as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress, which has a negative influence on health, and which requires professional medical help.

This issue concerns an increasingly growing number of employees, regardless of their position, whether they be the CEOs of major companies, novice salesmen in growing businesses or doctors who treat the most seriously ill. Meanwhile, the consequences of burnout disturb the extra-professional spheres of life by affecting family ties, disrupting relations with friends and resulting in isolation. As many as 55 percent of Europeans are already experiencing burnout. 

The latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) maintained by the World Health Organization saw the inclusion of burnout as a factor influencing health status and constituting a basis for contact with health services. Burnout has been defined as a factor that has a significant influence on health and which requires professional medical help, whereas its three main symptoms include: first, feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; second, a negative or cynical attitude towards one’s job; and third, reduced professional efficacy.

An example? A 27-year-old from Sweden

Natali Suonvieri, a 27-year-old based in Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast, experienced these symptoms. She spoke about the problem with BBC in early August, 2019.

She stated that she had hit the wall and had been signed-off with exhaustion in 2017 while working as a marketing manager for a small start-up. Her standard working hours were 8-17, though she sometimes worked overtime and checked her emails in the evening. Cecilia Axeland, a 25-year-old from Stockholm, was also “burned out”. She was working above-average hours and “travelling a lot” in a sales job when she experienced a clinical burnout two years ago, but says that the pressure to work out and “achieve things” in her spare time was also a major trigger for her exhaustion.

Young woman burnout

“I felt the pressure… you need to be healthy, you need to eat healthy, you need to relax but you also need to be ‘out there’,” she explained in her interview with BBC. “And since I also do music… I never basically rested and that drained me,” she added.

Burnout is a tremendously widespread problem, which is confirmed by experts and data alike

“Anybody can get burned out,” argues Suonvieri, who also runs Sweden’s biggest Facebook community for experiencing stress.  “It’s not about the amount of time that you’re working, it’s about the control and the resources you have in the workplace… so that [you know you can] do a sufficient and a high-quality job,” the Swede said, and added: “It’s a complex issue, involving everything from leadership to what kind of working environment you have in general.” 55 percent of Europeans have experienced burnout. “It’s nearly a universal problem,” claims Forsal.

This category of sickness was the most common reason for Swedes to be off work in 2018, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, accounting for more than 20% of sickness benefit cases across all age groups.

Rates have shifted dramatically among young workers, with cases up by 144% for 25-29 year-olds since 2013. A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.

Burnout is a problem in places such as France, Sweden and the Netherlands

Burnout is recognised as an occupational disease in at least nine European countries including France, Sweden and the Netherlands – as can be found in the article titled “Burnout syndrome as an occupational disease in the European Union: an exploratory study”. Meanwhile, the “Workplace Burnout Survey” prepared by Delloite reports that in the United States some surveys show that 77% of professionals say they have experienced burnout.

It all began in 1974. Herbert J. Freudenberger, a psychologist who coined the term “burnout” for the fatigued and frazzled. It was in 1974 when he used this expression in his book, titled: “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.” He defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” His interest in the subject arose as a result of problems he encountered in treating dedicated mental health workers, his son said.

The psychologist found burnout – which leaves people feeling they are trying harder and accomplishing less – both in patients and fellow staff members.

He noticed that tired, discouraged people became sloppy and stopped making time for meaningful discussions with their peers. They also experienced a loss of self-confidence and a sense of boredom. Paradoxically, he observed that the lack of self-esteem was sometimes manifested through feelings of omnipotence and refusals of offers of help.

He developed individual and group therapy for these symptoms.

His observations about burnout were included in the books “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement,” which he wrote with Geraldine Richelson, and “Women’s Burnout: How to Spot It, How to Reverse It, and How to Prevent It” (1985), which he wrote with Gail North.

“The syndrome is now an epidemic”, Dan Schawbel, research director at HR advisory firm Future Workplace, said in an interview with CNBC. He also expects the issue to worsen. Schawbel said burnout has become a problem as employees work more and feel they’re not being fairly compensated. Though Americans on average get 10 days of vacation, Schawbel said employees are often pressured into skipping vacation days. He added that technology also plays a role in the rise of burnout because employees often have to respond to emails or calls outside of normal work hours.
Burnout doesn’t just negatively affect workers, either. Schawbel pointed to a 2017 study that says 95% of human resource leaders say the syndrome sabotages workplace retention. Schawbel said companies don’t have an incentive to change workplace environments that cause burnout. He said stronger laws and more labour unions would help protect workers.

“Not having your phone is the new vacation,”
says Schawbel.


“Employee burnout has reached epidemic proportions. While many organizations take steps to manage employee fatigue, there are far fewer efforts to proactively manage burnout. Not only can employee burnout sap productivity and fuel absenteeism, but as this survey shows, it will undermine engagement and cause an organization’s top performers to leave the business altogether. This creates a never-ending cycle of disruption that makes it difficult to build the high-performing workforce needed to compete in today’s business environment. Organizations should seek out and implement technology solutions that provide a proactive approach to mitigating burnout, such as the scheduling of rest during rolling periods as long as a year. Workforce analytics can also identify and alert managers to trends in scheduling and absenteeism that may indicate an employee is on the path to burnout so changes can be made,” states Charlie DeWitt, vice president of business development at Kronos, in the article titled “The Employee Burnout Crisis: Study Reveals Big Workplace Challenge in 2017”.

“Actually burnout is always connected to some kind of work, I mean that’s part of the definition. Well, burnout in itself is a state of exhaustion. It resembles in many aspects of depressive disorders, with low mood combined with anxiety, but the major feature is exhaustion and resistance to go to work or to do work. It’s quite common in the population today and it is widely discussed, even more than any other mental disorders, because it is so prevalent, and so many people have experienced some kind of burnout,” claims prof. dr med. Wulf Rössler of The Kusnacht Practice.

How is the treatment tailored to the client?

“We try to find out what these particular causes are for each client and our programme is always designed to each client. It is not a standard programme, it’s something we discuss with our clients so that it fits their needs, their understanding, and it must be something they agree with. So this is nothing you just can do because we treat people, it’s necessary to always have an agreement with your clients if you want to do good psychotherapy,” says Rössler. He also admits that burnout is a state where a job that had previously been performed with satisfaction no longer gives that feeling, and instead becomes increasingly more tiresome, disheartening, and leads to physical and mental exhaustion.

  • First, Rössler suggests that you should choose the right job for yourself. Attempting to come to like a job that does not suit you at all is not a solution, and instead only accelerates your burning out. Everyone’s individual temperament and natural predispositions mean that you will find yourself right where you belong at one post, while at another you will always feel like an incompetent stranger.
  • Second, you should determine your priorities. When you know the values that you want to base your life upon, it will be easier for you to abide by them. Check every now and again whether you are faithful to them, and whether your job does not intrude upon the important spheres of your life. If the values of the company that you work at cannot be reconciled with yours, and they drive you into a serious internal conflict, it might be worth thinking about changing jobs.
  • Third, define clear limits for yourself. Determine how many hours you want to devote to your work, and when to start the time dedicated just for your family, your rest and other activities.
  • Fourth, appreciate yourself. “Celebrate your successes, appreciate your skills. Take a look back from time to time and remember how much you have managed to achieve, and how many difficulties you have overcome. Give yourself the right to make mistakes and to have a worse day. Nobody’s perfect, and neither are you,” says Rössler.
  • Fifth, give yourself the right to rest and regenerate, plan it in advance. Make sure that you take breaks from your work, that you have leisure time and opportunities for pleasure.
  • Sixth, do the sports that you appreciate. Physical activity will also help you maintain a distance from many things. When on vacation, take care of your free time, and not your job.
  • Seventh, eat healthy and natural. Eat unprocessed products, avoid fast food and refrain from taking substances.
  • Eight, care for the relationships that are important to you. “Without our loved ones, their smiles, interest, care and support, we suffer and feel unwell,” states prof. dr med. Wulf Rössler of The Kusnacht Practice. He explains that love and friendship can help overcome difficult moments, while the time spent with family and friends helps maintain a distance from work and its problems.
  • Ninth, have a hobby. It can be gardening, jogging, reading or dancing. Whatever it is, make this space off-limits for your job. Let it be an area dedicated solely to relaxation, happiness and creative expression.
  • Tenth, take care of your personal development. Not just in your field. Seek what makes you think, what presents questions and challenges to you: interesting people, books, films, activities. Be curious and open to new things.

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